I don’t need to rehash the speculative firestorm* about Beyoncé lip syncing her performance of the Star Spangled Banner at the Inauguration on Monday; but since some very prominent folks are asking whether it even matters, I feel the need to weigh in.
It matters. A lot.
Twenty-first century Western culture is hideously narcissistic. We’re surrounded by glossy exteriors that desperately cover even the tiniest flaw. Our culture tells us to be ashamed of our brokenness and horrified that someone might find out we’re not perfect.
The result is millions of Photoshopped ads, pornography that looks nothing like real human sexual interaction, music that’s had the soul autotuned out, professional athletes taking drugs to make them seem superhuman, and the rich telling the rest of us that they got it all through “hard work” alone.
Live music is supposed to help us cut through all that garbage by being entirely spontaneous and of-the-moment. It’s supposed to take us where we’ve never been before and will never go again. It shows the artist as they are, flaws and all. It hangs in the air for an instant and then vanishes; and in doing so it puts artist and audience in touch with the upside of mortality.
Studio music is different. When you’re making a packaged product, you polish things. I’ll admit, Pete and I used a touch of autotune here and there while we were mixing Rise; because like even the best singers, I sometimes go a little flat or sharp. We also did about fifteen takes of every song and spliced together the best phrases from each take. Everyone does this with studio music, and everyone knows it; but it’s not supposed to happen live.
That’s why, when you set the expectation that you’re playing live, but you lip sync to a track that you made in a studio using the process I described above, you make control and perfection a higher priority than authenticity and vulnerability; and in so doing you rob your performance of its living force. So if Beyoncé did indeed lip sync, it matters a great deal and it was a crappy thing for her to have done. I hope next time she sings the Star Spangled Banner, we get to hear the magic of her extraordinary voice in the moment and enjoy a miracle nobody has ever heard before.
* Nothing has been proven conclusively one way or the other; but compared to Kelly Clarkson and James Taylor’s performances, Beyoncé’s did sound oddly perfect. There wasn’t a breath out of place or a flat note. Even Christina Aguilera hit some flat notes in her recent performance at the People’s Choice Awards. I don’t know for certain that Beyoncé’s performance was autotuned, but it sure seems that way when I listen to it.